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Lower Colorado River Multi-Species Conservation Program Balancing Resource Use and Conservation

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Gila Woodpecker

      (Melanerpes uropygialis)

Gila Woodpecker - Great Basin Bird Observatory - Amy LeistGila Woodpecker - Great Basin Bird Observatory - Amy LeistGila Woodpecker - Great Basin Bird Observatory - Amy Leist
  • DESCRIPTION
  • DISTRIBUTION
  • HABITAT
  • CONSERVATION
  • MULTIMEDIA

General Description

The Gila woodpecker (Melanerpes uropygialis) is a noisy, aggressive, and conspicuous medium-sized woodpecker. Adults weigh 1.8-2.8 oz (51-79 g) and measures 9.4 in (24 cm) from head to tail. Adults have a light grayish-brown head, neck, and underparts. The bill is dull black. The lower belly is golden yellow and the legs are a dark greenish-brown. The back and tail are narrowly barred black and white. In flight, a white patch on the wings is obvious. At close distance, the male has a conspicuous red patch on the top of the head. Females and juveniles resemble the male; however, they lack the red patch on the head. Differing in size, the male is heavier, with a longer bill than the female.

Legal Status

The state of California listed the Gila woodpecker as endangered in 1980. The Gila woodpecker is not listed in either Arizona or Nevada.

Taxonomy

The Gila woodpecker (Melanerpes uropygialis) is a member of the Picidae family. 

Reproduction

The height of Gila woodpecker nesting season is mid-April through mid-May. Along the LCR, fledglings have been seen as early as April and as late as July. Gila woodpeckers sometimes lay second and third clutches. No data is available for age at first breeding and lifetime reproductive success. Nest cavity competition exists with elf owls and European starlings, with both species documented evicting Gila woodpeckers from the woodpecker’s cavities. Most breeding data comes from saguaro habitat, although Gila woodpeckers will nest in cottonwood, willow, sycamore, and ash in riparian areas, and palm, eucalyptus, Athel tamarisk, and mulberry trees in urban areas.

Diet

The main food sources for the Gila woodpecker are insects such as ants, beetles, grasshoppers, cicadas, moths and butterflies. The fruits of the saguaros, and berries from mistletoe and lyceum are consumed as well. Gila woodpeckers have been observed at feeding stations eating suet, meat, corn, peaches, pears, and eggs from chicken coops, as well as storing oak acorns. In cottonwood trees, Gila woodpeckers eat galls (egg sacs) from aphids laid on the petioles of the leaves. Gila woodpeckers will drink water from a container and sugar water from hummingbird feeders. Gila woodpeckers forage primarily on the trunk and inner branches of trees, probing for insects. Other foraging methods include pecking and gleaning. Gila woodpeckers in summer riparian LCR habitats have been found to contain cicadas (>50%), ants, termites, beetles, insect larvae, and a few cactus fruits in their stomachs.

Threats

In the Sonoran Desert, European starlings and human development threaten Gila woodpeckers. Gila woodpeckers compete with European starlings for nesting sites. In the Southwest, European starling numbers have more than doubled in the past 30 years. Near Blythe, California, European starlings have been reporting removing a nesting pair of Gila woodpeckers from different nests and also removing the woodpecker’s eggs. European starlings have been observed displacing pairs of Gila woodpeckers both near Parker Dam, Arizona, and the Bill Williams River delta. Along the LCR, the loss of cottonwood-willow stands has reduced the numbers of Gila woodpeckers.

More Information

Additional information on this species, as well as source documentation, can be found in the species accounts located at this link (PDF). The Conceptual Ecological Model (CEM) can be found here (PDF). Technical Reports on this species can be found here.

Updated December 8, 2017

Historically, the Gila woodpecker was found throughout southeastern California, along the lower Colorado River (LCR), and in extreme southern Nevada, southern Arizona, and Mexico west to Baja California, south to Jalisco, and east to Chihuahua and Durango.

Currently, the Gila woodpecker has declined in southeastern California from its historical range. This decline is associated with the loss of woodland habitat and competition with European starlings. The Gila woodpecker still occupies its historic range along the LCR, in extreme southern Nevada, southern Arizona, and throughout western Mexico. A few rare sightings outside of the Gila woodpecker’s range have been documented. Gila woodpeckers were reported in extreme southwestern New Mexico, Los Angeles County, and in Ontario, California.

Along the LCR, the Gila woodpecker can be found as far north as Clark County, Nevada, and south to Yuma, Arizona. A non-migratory species, the Gila woodpecker may roam locally short distances in the winter as food sources move.

Found in the arid deserts of the southwestern United States and northeastern Mexico, the Gila woodpecker utilizes saguaro cacti and riparian woodlands. Within the LCR, the Gila woodpecker is found along the river and washes in cottonwood-willow habitat. These areas tend to have a high canopy, large trees and snags, including a high foliage density and diversity with the presence of willow trees.

 

LCR MSCP Conservation Measures

The Habitat Conservation Plan provides conservation measures specific to each species. Listed below are the species specific conservation measures for the Gila woodpecker. Click on the arrows to expand the table.

GIWO1—Create 1,702 acres of Gila woodpecker habitat

Of the 5,940 acres of created cottonwood-willow, at least 1,702 acres will be designed and created to provide habitat for this species in Reaches 3–6. Patches of created habitat will be designed and managed to support cottonwood-willow types I–IV in patches as large as possible but will not be created in patches smaller than 50 acres to achieve, based on the best available information, the minimum habitat patch size requirements of the species. In addition to the spatial replacement of affected habitat, the quality of created habitat will be substantially greater than affected habitats. Patches of existing cottonwood-willow in the LCR MSCP planning area typically include dense stands of saltcedar that support little vegetative diversity relative to the cottonwood-willow land cover that will be created as habitat. Created habitat will be dominated by native riparian trees (i.e., cottonwood and willow trees), support a tree structure corresponding to structural types I–IV, support a diversity of plant species, and be created to the greatest extent practicable in patch sizes optimal for supporting the species. The design and management criteria described in the conservation measures for the southwestern willow flycatcher (Section 5.7.2 in the HCP) and yellow billed cuckoo (Section 5.7.14 in the HCP) will ensure that created cottonwood-willow stands in structural types I–IV will also provide other habitat requirements for this species (e.g., habitat patch size, food requirements). Created habitat, thus, will approximate the condition of native habitat of the species that was historically present along the LCR.

GIWO2—Install artificial snags to provide Gila woodpecker nest sites

Until vegetation in created patches of Gila woodpecker habitat has matured sufficiently to support structural characteristics of nesting habitat (i.e., snags), install artificial snags that can be used by Gila woodpeckers to excavate nesting cavities.

MRM1—Conduct surveys and research to better identify covered and evaluation species habitat requirements

Conduct surveys and research, as appropriate, to collect information necessary to better define the species habitat requirements and to design and manage fully functioning created covered and evaluation species habitats. This conservation measure applies to those species for which comparable measures are not subsumed under species-specific conservation measures (Section 5.7 in the HCP). They are not applicable to species for which habitat would not be created under the LCR MSCP Conservation Plan, such as the desert tortoise, relict leopard frog, humpback chub, and threecorner milkvetch.

MRM2—Monitor and adaptively manage created covered and evaluation species habitats

Created species habitats will be managed to maintain their functions as species habitat over the term of the LCR MSCP. Created habitat will be monitored and adaptively managed over time to determine the types and frequency of management activities that may be required to maintain created cottonwood-willow, honey mesquite, marsh, and backwater land cover as habitat for covered species. This conservation measure applies to those species for which comparable measures are not subsumed under species-specific conservation measures (Section 5.7 in the HCP). They are not applicable to species for which habitat would not be created under the LCR MSCP Conservation Plan, such as the desert tortoise, relict leopard frog, humpback chub, and threecorner milkvetch.

MRM3—Conduct research to determine and address the effects of nest site competition with European starlings on reproduction of covered species

Research will be undertaken to determine whether nest site competition with European starlings is a substantial factor limiting the reproductive success of the elf owl, gilded flicker, and Gila woodpecker. If so, experimental programs may be implemented to determine the effectiveness and practicality of controlling starlings.

CMM1—Reduce risk of loss of created habitat to wildfire

Management of LCR MSCP conservation areas will include contributing to and integrating with local, state, and Federal agency fire management plans. Conservation areas will be designed to contain wildfire and facilitate rapid response to suppress fires (e.g., fire management plans will be an element of each conservation area management plan).

CMM2—Replace created habitat affected by wildfire

Replace created habitat affected by wildfire. In the event of created-habitat degradation or loss as a result of wildfire, land management and habitat creation measures to support the reestablishment of native vegetation will be identified and implemented.

AMM1—To the extent practicable, avoid and minimize impacts of implementing the LCR MSCP on existing covered species habitats

To the extent practicable, establishment and management of LCR MSCP–created habitats will avoid removal of existing cottonwood-willow stands, honey mesquite bosques, marsh, and backwaters to avoid and minimize impacts on habitat they provide for covered species. Temporary disturbance of covered species habitats, however, may be associated with habitat creation and subsequent maintenance activities (e.g., controlled burning in marshes and removal of trees to maintain succession objectives). LCR MSCP conservation measures that could result in such temporary disturbances will, to the extent practicable, be designed and implemented to avoid or minimize the potential for disturbance. In addition to implementing AMM3 and AMM4 below, these measures could include conducting preconstruction surveys to determine if covered species are present and, if present, implementing habitat establishment and management activities during periods when the species would be least sensitive to those activities; or redesigning the activities to avoid the need to disturb sensitive habitat use areas; staging construction activities away from sensitive habitat use areas; and implementing BMPs to control erosion when implementing ground disturbing activities.

AMM3—To the extent practicable, avoid and minimize disturbance of covered bird species during the breeding season

To the extent practicable, to avoid and minimize potential impacts on covered bird species, vegetation management activities (e.g., periodic removal of emergent vegetation to maintain canals and drains) associated with implementation of covered activities and the LCR MSCP that could result in disturbance to covered bird species will not be implemented during the breeding season to prevent injury or mortality of eggs and young birds unable to avoid these activities. Table 5-9 in the HCP describes the breeding period for each of the covered species during which, to the extent practicable, vegetation management activities in each species' habitat will be avoided.

AMM5—Avoid impacts of operation, maintenance, and replacement of hydroelectric generation and transmission facilities on covered species in the LCR MSCP planning area

To the extent practicable, before implementing activities associated with OM&R of hydroelectric generation and transmission facilities, measures will be identified and implemented that are necessary to avoid take of covered species where such activities could otherwise result in take. These measures could include conducting surveys to determine if covered species are present and, if so, deferring the implementation of activities to avoid disturbance during the breeding season; redesigning the activities to avoid the need to disturb covered species habitat use areas; staging of equipment outside of covered species habitats; delineating the limits of vegetation control activities to ensure that only the vegetation that needs to be removed to maintain infrastructure is removed; stockpiling and disposing of removed vegetation in a manner that minimizes the risk of fire; and implementing BMPs to control erosion when implementing ground disturbing activities.

AMM6—Avoid or minimize impacts on covered species habitats during dredging, bank stabilization activities and other river management activities

To the extent practicable, before initiating activities involved with river maintenance projects, measures will be identified and implemented that avoid or minimize take of covered species where such activities could otherwise result in take. Such measures could include alternative methods to achieve project goals, timing of activities, pre-activity surveys, and minimizing the area of effect, including offsite direct and indirect effects (e.g., avoiding or minimizing the need to place dredge spoil and discharge lines in covered species habitats; placing dredge spoils in a manner that will not affect covered species habitats).


Research and Monitoring Activities

LCR MSCP conduct a variety of research and monitoring activities along the LCR encompassing both MSCP and non-MSCP species. For a complete list of all activities, please see the Research and Monitoring Activities web page.

 

This gallery includes photos of this species. If you require larger photos, please contact our webmaster Michelle Reilly at mreilly@usbr.gov.

Male Gila woodpecker in its nest cavity in a live tree near Parker Dam - Photo by Great Basin Bird Observatory - Amy Leist Gila woodpecker pair forages on a saguaro cactus - Photo by Great Basin Bird Observatory - Amy Leist Male Gila woodpecker perches on a snag in riparian habitat - Great Basin Bird Observatory - Amy Leist Male Gila woodpecker in its nest cavity in a live willow tree - Photo by Great Basin Bird Observatory - Amy Leist Male Gila woodpecker entering its nest cavity in a live tree near the Parker Dam - Photo by Great Basin Bird Observatory - Amy Leist A biologist places a standard aluminum United States Fish and Wildlife Service issued bird band on a male Gila woodpecker - Photo by Reclamation